Using Google Cultural Institute to Overcome Barriers to Field Trips

Getting students out of school to visit historic sites is difficult. I teach in the UK and here we have to fill in loads of paperwork – risk assessments, parent permission slips. It’s all a bit of a nightmare.

But field trips to historic sites are a fundamental part of the magic of our subject. Students should have the opportunity to visit museums, castles, heritage sites. From these places, and by working with artefacts on site, they can make a proper connection to the past, feeling it’s resonance with the present.

So the question arises, how can we remove the barriers to getting our students to see historic sites? Well, the internet and Google in particular is giving us a helping hand.

The Google Cultural Institute has made an ace website that allows you to virtually explore sites or items of cultural significance. Using their StreetView technology they’ve filmed sites all over the globe that allow you to sit in the comfort of your home and explore. They’ve used incredibly high definition cameras to film individual objects that allow you to investigate the tiniest detail.

Now obviously there is no substitute for the real thing, but if you also have a lot of barriers for getting the kids out of your classroom here are three suggestions for using the resources of the Google Cultural Institute. Of course, there are so many more ways it could be used.  Please do share your ideas.  

Be like a tourist!

The World Wonders bit of the site allows you to visit a plethora of sites around the globe from Stonehenge to the Colosseum, and from Cordoba to Angkor Wat. Using StreetView you can ‘walk’ around these sites and wander down their corridors. This is magical on it’s own but by adding a series of simple tasks you can also really engage your students with a site in the way that you might do if you were at the real place.

I teach Mughal India to my 11-12 year old class and run a virtual field visit to the Taj Mahal. In an hour the students have to visit the site and complete the following:

  • ‘Take a photo of the best view’ – this can be a screen capture
  • Write a postcard home – what did you like seeing? what disappointed you? would you visit again?
  • Look in depth at the materials used to make the site
  • Compare the front and the back of the site. What is the main difference?
  • Discuss how has the site changed or stayed the same by comparing it to photos of the site from the past.

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Be the curator

Google has recently completed a project with the British Museum where they have filmed all the galleries and done in depth photography on a number of artefacts (more on that in a minute). Ignore the ‘British’ bit, as ex-museum director Neil Macgregor says this “was from its inception designed to be the collection of every citizen of the world”. There are galleries here on all the main periods of history – the Middle Ages, the Renaissance. You name it and the British Museum probably has a gallery on it.

This is a fab resource on its own to let your kids explore. But if you want them to really think put them in the role of the curator. Pick a gallery (below is the Anglo Saxon room –  to get there go to Museum View and the Anglo Saxon room is on the third floor) and tell them they need to bin five objects that they think are worthless and are to save five objects only for a special exhibition. This is a perfect activity to get the kids to grapple with significance as they will need to really think about what is worth keeping and what the objects tell us about a period. The best way to do this is to get the students to come up with a criteria in groups, e.g. an object that reveals something or an object that shows you about ordinary people at the time. Once they have chosen their objects give them lots of time to fully justify their decisions as it is this justification that will really get them to push themselves in terms of historical thinking.

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Be the archivist

Google have also begun digitally photographing significant items at a vast number of museums and galleries around the globe (there were 233 museums to choose from when I wrote this). At each site there seems to be about 100 items to choose from and all are photographed in incredible detail allowing your students to really investigate them. I pulled up the Jewish Museum of Berlin (one of my favourites) and found this amazing plan for the Theresienstadt ghetto from 1942.

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Send your students a link to the object and set them a series of questions to get them thinking like an archivist:

  • What is the object made of?
  • What does the object tell us?
  • What do we notice about specific details in the object?
  • What more would we like to know? How might I find out more about the object?

This is a fab way of really getting the students to develop a sense of period – a clear understanding of the context of the time. From a single object like the one above you can brilliantly get your students to put themselves in the minds of the people in the past. You can see what they were thinking, what their values were.

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Richard Kennett

Richard Kennett has a BA in History, specialising in Medieval Europe, and an MEd, focusing on history education, both from the University of Bristol. He has been teaching history in Bristol since 2008 at Redland Green School which was awarded the Gold award by the Historical Association. In addition to teaching Richard is an author of history textbooks for Hodder publishing. He leads the Bristol Schools’ History Forum, a network of local teachers, who meet regularly to discuss pedagogy. Richard has presented his work at the Schools History Project conference and the Historical Association conference in the UK where his interests have focused on teaching a sense of period and using micro history techniques. He is a prolific blogger (www.radicalhistory.co.uk) and tweeter (@kenradical).

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